Early to rise, early to bed.
It was a great idea to post daily updates while I was in the land of the Bible. It just wasn’t a very realistic idea. The combination of jet lag, early morning wake up calls, and long, active days reversed the old maxim: we were “early to rise, early to bed.” I found I didn’t have time or energy for new posts. Apologies if you have been looking in vain for the promised updates. You can find daily posts by GRTS students here and at #grtsisrael. My plan now is a series of posts on the high points of the trip over the next several weeks.
In my previous post I spoke in a general way that may have been misleading. The “land of the Bible” obviously encompasses more than the modern state of Israel. It reaches east to Babylon (modern Iraq), south to Egypt, west to Rome, and north to Syria and Turkey. At the heart of these Bible lands are today’s Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. Our trip actually started in Jordan, so we will begin with this remarkable country.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
Jordan is a constitutional monarchy which has been ruled by King Abdullah II since 1999. Archaeological discoveries dated to the paleolithic period indicate that Jordan has been inhabited for at least 20,000 years. The country was officially formed as an independent state in 1946 after a transitional period beginning with the Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire during World War I. It is about 1/8 the size of Texas, roughly equivalent to the size of the US state of Maine. The population is around 10,000,000, including many refugees from Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. About 4,000,000 Jordanians live in the capital city, Amman. Jordan has been a model of moderation and stability in a very turbulent region. About 95% of the population are Muslims, and 4% are Christians. Jordan’s energy resources are small compared to its neighbor Saudi Arabia, leading to its growing solar and wind energy programs. Its main products are potash, phosphates, and pharmaceuticals. Tourism is also a major industry.
JORDAN IN THE BIBLE
The importance of Jordan in the Bible has led to it being called “the other biblical land.” Gilead (over 100 biblical references), Ammon, Moab (around 170 biblical references), and Edom (about 95 biblical references) are the biblical terms for the regions from north to south in western Jordan. The Israelites had many conflicts with the inhabitants of these regions. Rabbah is the ancient term for the modern city of Amman. It occurs fifteen times in the OT. Situated near a large spring which becomes the headwaters of the Jabbok River, Rabbah’s history likely goes back to 7,000 BCE. Another important Jordanian city is Jerash, in the region of Gerasa (Mark 5:1; Luke 8:26, 37) about thirty miles north of Amman. It is one of the most well-preserved examples of Roman city architecture in the world. Jerash and Amman (known in Hellenistic times as Philadelphia) were both cities of the Decapolis, in the area stretching from Damascus in the north to Amman in the south. This is an area where Jesus ministered (Matt 4:25; Mark 5:20; 7:31). The place-names Gadara (Matt 8:28) and Perea (a variant reading in Luke 6:17) also refer to this general area. Heshbon is another Jordanian city of note, being mentioned thirty times in the Old Testament. It was the city of King Sihon, who was defeated by Israel after opposing their passage during the exodus (Num 21:21-35). Later the area was given to the people of Reuben and Gad, because it was appropriate for their livestock (Num 32; cf. Josh 12:1-6; 13:8-32)
The following stand out among the many significant biblical places and events in Jordan.
The Jordan River
The Jordan River occupies part of a huge geological rift valley that stretches from Syria to the Red Sea. The Bible refers to the Jordan River about 200 times. From four sources in the north near Mt. Hermon, including Dan and Banias (Caesarea Philippi), the upper Jordan flows south through the Hula basin to the Sea of Galilee. Exiting the south end of the Sea, the lower Jordan flows roughly 70 miles south to the Dead Sea (about 1300 feet below sea level). The drop in altitude over the river’s course may account for its name—Jordan may be derived from the Hebrew word yarad, “to go down.” From Dan to the Sea of Galilee is about 25 miles, and the elevation drops from about 570 feet above sea level to 690 feet below sea level. From the southern end of the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea (about 65 miles), the river drops another 600 feet. Three major tributaries enter the Jordan from the east, the Yarmuk, about five miles south of the Sea of Galilee, the Jabbok, about thirty-five miles further south, and the Arnon, east of the Dead Sea. The Jordan forms a natural boundary between Israel and Jordan, and is the referent for the biblical term “beyond/across the Jordan” and the current “West Bank.”
Much of the Old Testament is tied to the Jordan, including the narratives of Abraham and Lot (Gen 13), Jacob and Esau (Gen 32:9-12), David and Absalom (2 Sam 19:17), and Elijah and Elisha (2 Kgs 5:10; 6:1-7. Of course, Israel’s exodus from Egypt led to a momentous and miraculous crossing of the Jordan into the promised land (Josh 1:2; 3-4), the land Moses could see (but not enter- Num 20:10-13)) as he looked out over the Jordan valley and beyond from Mt. Nebo east of Jericho (Deut 34). After Israel conquered the land, the territory allotted to Manasseh included Gilead on the eastern side of the Jordan. Reuben and Gad’s lands were totally on the east side of the river. These tribes built an altar near the Jordan to link themselves to the Lord’s altar in the tabernacle, but the altar was misunderstood by the western tribes, nearly leading to civil war (Josh 22).
In the New Testament, the ministry of John the Baptist was located in the Judean wilderness near the Jordan (Matt 3:5-6; Mark 1:5; Luke 3:3; John 1:28), and Jesus was baptized by John in those waters (Matt 3:13-17/Mark 1:9-11/Luke 3:21-22). Jesus would have crossed the Jordan several times during his ministry (John 3:26; 10:40). Peter’s crucial confession of Jesus’ identity occurred at or near the headwaters of the Jordan at Caesarea Philippi (Matt 16:13; Mark 8:27).
Those who visit Jordan and Israel today, not unlike Naaman of old (2 Kgs 5; Luke 4:27), are surprised that such an unimposing stream as the Jordan is so prominent in the Bible. As the Jordan flows south of the Sea of Galilee toward the Dead Sea, pollution is a major problem. Much water is diverted for domestic and agricultural purposes. Runoff from saline springs, agriculture, industry, and sewage plants flows into the river. Year by year a decreasing amount of increasingly polluted water enters the Dead Sea, which is rapidly shrinking. More on this in our next post.
Israel’s exodus from Egypt and eventual route into the promised land led northeast through the Edom and Moab, passing through rugged, arid wilderness territory like that pictured here. Unlike Israel’s, our travel through this area was eased by a motor coach, 4×4 pickup trucks, and backpacks with built-in hydration bladders.
During Israel’s passage from Kadesh through Edom and Moab, Aaron the brother of Moses was divested of his garments and died at Mt. Hor, a consequence of his actions at Meribah (Num 20:10-13, 22-29)
Israel’s travels through Jordan is the background and setting of setting of the book of Deuteronomy, which contains Moses’ instructions to Israel as they prepare to enter the promised land (Deut 1:1-5). Conflict with and victory over Sihon, king of Heshbon (about 20 miles east of Jericho), and Og, king of Bashan (east of the Sea of Galilee) figure prominently in the narrative of Israel’s travel to Shittim, the point of departure across the Jordan into Canaan, the promised land (Josh 2:1; 3:1).
King Mesha and his stele
The Mesha Stele or Moabite Stone (discovered at Dibon in 1868, currently housed in the Louvre, Paris) is a remarkable complement to the biblical narrative of 2 Kings 3 concerning the revolt of Mesha, King of Moab, against Jehoram, King of Israel (2 Kgs 1:1), after the death of Ahab King of Israel. Jehoram enlisted Jehoshaphat King of Israel and the King of Edom to aid him in a campaign against Moab from the south through Edom (2 Kgs 3:8). A water shortage threatened the campaign, but Elisha the prophet brought water to the area (2 Kgs 3:9-20). As Elisha prophesied, Jehoram’s forces prevailed at first (2 Kgs 3:21-25). With defeat imminent, Mesha sacrificed his firstborn son on the wall of his city Kir Hareseth (near modern Al Karak). This deplorable and horrific act brought great wrath down upon Israel (2 Kgs 3:27), whether the Moabites’ wrath or God’s wrath through the Moabites is difficult to say), and Jehoram’s forces retired from the battle.
The Moabite Stone is a shaped and inscribed chunk of basalt, about 42 inches high, 28 inches wide, and 14 inches deep. It is a royal victory stele celebrating Mesha’s victory over Israel and the power of the god Chemosh. As would be expected, it omits mention of the sacrifice of Mesha’s son. The inscription is quite valuable not only for biblical history but also for the study of the historical development of semitic languages. Andre Lemaire’s argument for a reference to the “house of David” in the stone has been disputed by other scholars.
Petra and the Nabateans
Although its origin and history are somewhat obscure, Petra is the most famous tourist site in Jordan today. Millions of people may not be aware that they have seen Petra—The Khazneh and the Siq (images below) are the setting for the final scene of the 1989 blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Click here if you’d like to see Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, and their two sidekicks galloping away from the Khazneh through the Siq into the sunset (without the holy grail).
Petra’s unique architecture features buildings carved into beautiful red sandstone cliffs, leading to it being known as “the rose city.” Al Khazneh, pictured above, is popularly known as the Treasury but was more likely the mausoleum of King Aretas IV. It is difficult to establish the origin of the city, but the Nabateans lived there from perhaps the fourth century BCE, flourishing from the first century BCE to the first century CE. Later Nabbatea was annexed to Rome and damaged by earthquakes. After centuries of obscurity, it was “discovered” by the Swiss traveler Johann Burckhardt in 1812.
The Nabbateans’ knowledge of and ability to conserve scarce water resources led to their control of caravan trade routes through Edom and to great wealth and power for a time. Some believe Sela in the Old Testament (e.g. 2 Kgs 14:7; Jer 49:6) is a reference to Petra, but this is doubtful. Paul’s time in Arabia (Gal 1:17) possibly brought him as far south as Petra. According to 2 Corinthians 11:32-33, an official in Damascus under the Nabbatean king Aretas IV, who reigned from 9 BCE to 40 CE, was seeking to arrest Paul, but Paul was secretly lowered over the town wall in a basket and escaped.
Aretas IV’s daughter had married Herod Antipas, but Antipas divorced her in favor of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. This led to the beheading of John the Baptist, who had condemned the union (Matt 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29; Luke 9:7-9. According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 18.116-19), John’s was executed at Herod’s fortress Machaerus in Jordan.
Madaba and its map
Madaba (or Medeba) is about 20 miles south of Amman. It is mentioned in the narrative of the conquest of Moab (Num 21:30; Josh 13:9, 16) and in the times of David’s war with the Ammonites (1 Chron 19:7). It also figures in the history of the intertestamental period (e.g. 1 Macc 9:35-42).
The Madaba map is the oldest map of Palestine in existence, dating from ca. 550 CE. It is a mosaic, part of the floor of St George’s Church, originally roughly eighteen by 50 feet in size, portraying Palestine and Jordan from Syria to Egypt. But as the picture above shows, the map was badly damaged through the years and is only partially preserved today.
The significance of the Madaba map lies in its location of biblical sites, such as the place of John’s baptism in the picture above. Altogether about 150 places from both the Old and New Testaments are named on the map.
The map’s portrayal of Jerusalem is particularly detailed and interesting. The Romans had changed the name of Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina and reconstructed the city following the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-136 CE). Accordingly, the map shows the central Roman cardo running south from the Damascus Gate through the city, but the name remains “Holy City Jerusalem” (the Word Jerusalem is incomplete). The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is also prominently featured.
Want to learn more about Jordan and the Bible?
So much more could be said about Jordan’s prominent role in the Bible, but this post is already too long. Edward Dawson’s Travel through Jordan emphasizes archaeology and biblical history. E Borgia’s Jordan: Past and Present focuses on Amman, Petra, and Jerash. For additional sites traditionally tied to biblical events, see this ebook provided by the Jordan Tourism Board.
Our next post in this series will focus on the Arabah and the western side of the Dead Sea, featuring Masada, En Gedi, and Qumran.
We conclude with excerpts from Joshua 24:6-15:
I brought your people out of Egypt . . . You saw with your own eyes what I did to the Egyptians.
Then you lived in the wilderness for a long time.
I brought you to the land of the Amorites who lived east of the Jordan. They fought against you, but I gave them into your hands . . .
Then you crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho.
The citizens of Jericho fought against you, . . . but I gave them into your hands.
So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.’
Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness.
Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.
But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living.
But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.